Michael Sam, a former defensive end from the University of Missouri and NFL draft hopeful, publicly announced last night that he is gay. This may not seem like the biggest news given that he’s just a college student, but if he continues on the career path he seems to be destined for, he will become the first openly gay athlete playing any of America’s “Big 4” sports (baseball, football, basketball & hockey).
In an interview with the New York Times, Sam revealed the story of him coming out to his teammates at Mizzou. While he had previously told some close friends, he had yet to announce this news to a larger group. Before the season began, the Missouri Tigers coach asked everybody to give information about themselves, similar to the icebreakers many other college students go through: what’s your major, where are you from, etc.
But given the prompt of, “What’s one thing your teammates don’t know about you?” Sam took the opportunity to tell his fellow Tigers that he was gay, and he was met with shaking of heads. Not the kind of head-shaking that says, “We’re upset,” but rather the kind that says “Well, thank God, he finally told us what we already knew.” Sam’s teammates responded with open arms and unconditional support, both on the field and off.
Sam recently finished up a stellar season for the Tigers and was projected to be drafted by an NFL team within the first three or four rounds, a good sign for anybody wanting to play the game. However, while the Mizzou players seemed to accept Sam, the NFL might not be as accepting of his homosexuality. Even in the Mizzou locker room, homophobic remarks and words were thrown around casually, as they always had been before Sam came out, though efforts were being made to change that. Mizzou coaches expressed some concern at the start of the year, but whether this was in regards to the team’s reactions or their own personal viewpoints is unknown. Still, while Sam doesn’t seem to have been on the receiving end of a great deal of unfair practices or prejudices, the NFL is an entirely different bear.
The movement for gay rights has clearly gained momentum over the last decade, but professional sports have yet to become a pioneering force in the world of gay rights. Never before has an openly gay athlete participated in a “Big 4” sport in America; a handful of players have come out after retirement, the most recent and most notable being Jason Collins. An NBA center who spent most of his career hopping from bench to bench, Collins publicly came out in a self-written Sports Illustrated article. Collins has yet to be signed out of free agency since the article was released.
While it is a hot-button issue with any sports team or league, the NFL in particular has been embroiled in controversy over the matter in recent years. In 2013, during an NFL scouting combine (during which college athletes are interviewed and their play is observed), University of Colorado tight end Nick Kasa was asked whether or not he liked girls. While such personal questions are in direct violation of NFL policies, it was ultimately ruled that the comment was not part of the formal interview, but rather “casual banter”. On media day of the Super Bowl last year, Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers made headlines with homophobic comments, stating, “No, we don’t want no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out of here if they do.” While he later apologized for his comments and many, including his own teammates, voiced their opposition towards him, it was a clear indication that many NFL players hold anti-gay biases.
One of the most notable examples of homophobia in the NFL occurred over the 2012 season within the Minnesota Vikings organization. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe posted a letter on Deadspin that expressed support for another player who spoke out against a same-sex marriage ban. When a teammate spoke out in favor of a same-sex marriage ban, Kluwe responded with a video outlining why he felt his teammate was wrong. Ultimately, Kluwe was released by the Vikings at the end of the 2013 season. In early January of this year, Kluwe published an article detailing the bigotry and unfair treatment he experienced due to his views. Kluwe firmly believes that he was mistreated and released due to his beliefs, though that has been adamantly denied by others involved.
So if the NFL seems to be a mixed bag of supportive activists and hateful homophobes, where does this leave Sam? In all honesty, I wish we were at a point where we could look at this situation and say, “Who cares?” I wish we lived in a world where an openly gay athlete in the NFL doesn’t make national headlines–it’s just an interesting fact about a person. Furthermore, it’s an interesting fact that has zero effect on their gameplay, which is the main reason they should be a well-known figure.
But we don’t. There are a multitude of reasons people in the NFL seem to feel uncomfortable with the idea of a gay player. Many players are firmly committed to their religious beliefs, while others express concern and nervousness over sharing a locker room with someone who is attracted to other men. Yet, as attitudes and feelings towards homosexuality change across America, this change may soon spread to professional sports.
It’s impossible to speculate what will happen to Sam as the NFL draft approaches. Though his strong gameplay has him technically projected as a third round pick, the biases and personal opinions of NFL professionals could harm Sam’s chances, making it impossible to predict his fate. Plus, while Sam is a very talented player, it’s always a risk to participate in the draft. The order and end result is so unpredictable that we can’t know for sure where Sam will end up, especially two months out from the final decision.
I hope Sam is drafted–based on skill alone, he should without a doubt be drafted. But I hope he can both play the game at the top of his ability and, if he chooses to, set an example and prove it’s possible to participate in professional sports and be openly gay. I strongly feel that there’s only one reason his chances in the draft should change: at 6-feet, 2-inches tall, he’s a little short for a professional defensive end. But he’d be a great outside lineman…